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Road trip takes Sabres into playoff contention
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - After spending the past 10 days on the road, Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was relieved to make a brief pit stop home Friday for a chance to change his wardrobe.
"I had used up about every garment of clean clothes that I had with me, and we were kind of down to the wire there," Miller said. "It was good to at least start some laundry and get some fresh looks."
Laundry aside, there's been nothing else stale about the Sabres these days.
They're on a 6-1-2 roll that has vaulted them into playoff contention for the first time since the start of the season. And the run has come mostly during what Miller described as a season-defining seven-game trip that concludes in Toronto on Saturday night.
With a 4-3 overtime win in Boston on Thursday night, Buffalo improved to 4-1-1 during its longest road swing of the season. The victory pushed the Sabres (33-26-8) into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, continuing what's been a significant turnaround for a team that sunk as low as 12th place on Dec. 31.
"I think we've shown a lot of resilience," Miller said, referring to the Sabres going 18-8-4 since Jan. 1. "We can be happy with the effort, and knowing that there's a lot of hockey left to play and a lot left to prove."
The Sabres are winning despite being without top-line center Derek Roy, who sustained a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 23.
Buffalo has responded with a more focused team effort, and a knack for winning close games. Since Dec. 28, the Sabres are 9-3-4 in games decided by one goal after opening the season going 7-7-4.
"I think they've showed everybody a lot. A little bit of their character was questioned," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We got off to a terrible start. There were games we should've won we let slip away. Now we're finding ways to win games."
The second-half surge partially coincides with Terry Pegula's purchase of the franchise last month. A longtime Sabres fan, the Pennsylvania billionaire has already begun breathing life into a team that had lost its direction under former owner Tom Golisano.
Vowing to spend to the NHL's salary cap, Pegula played a role in Buffalo acquiring forward Brad Boyes _ and the $4-plus million left on a contract that runs through next season _ in exchange for a second-round draft pick with St. Louis on Feb. 28.
The deal has already begun paying off. Boyes has three goals and three assists in six games with Buffalo, and scored the decisive goal against Boston on Thursday.
"It's one of the reasons why I assume I was here, to help offensively and I've been trying to do that," said Boyes, a two-time 30-goal-scorer, who's production had tailed off the past two years. "So far it's been good. But we've still got a ways to go, and I'm just looking to continue it."
For Boyes, his practice in Buffalo was his first in his new town after joining the team at the start of its road trip. Boyes is so unfamiliar with Buffalo, he joked he needed a ride from teammate Nathan Gerbe to get to his hotel room after getting into town from Boston.
Pegula is also providing some cosmetic changes to help inspire the Sabres. Upon arriving for practice Friday, Sabres players discovered a new carpet _ dark blue with the team's logo printed on it _ had been installed in the locker room while they were away.
"It finally looks like a locker room," forward Thomas Vanek said, crediting Pegula. "He's made it clear he's here to win. And I think you can see the changes already. He's part of us, and that's good."
Pegula's message is hard to miss. There is a quote from the new owner featured on a clear plaque that's mounted just inside the locker room entrance. Taken from Pegula's inaugural news conference, the quote reads: "From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup."
NOTES: RW Drew Stafford is considered day to day after he hurt his hamstring against the Bruins. ... LW Jochen Hecht is set to return after missing four games with an upper body injury. ... RW Patrick Kaleta will miss at least another week with what Ruff described as a severe bone bruise to his knee after being struck by a shot in a 3-2 overtime win at Minnesota on Sunday.
By John R. Bolton
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